Photography, Preservation, Stories Told

On Erskine Boulevard

My parents moved our family from the cookie-cutter prefab neighborhood that was Rabbit Hill in 1976 to a larger, nicer home on Erskine Boulevard on South Bend’s southeast side.

Erskine BoulevardIt was my first move, and I excitedly told everyone. My friends on the Hill were all sad to see us go, of course. But adults had a different reaction. Most of them looked momentarily wistful as they sighed, “Ohhhhhh, Erskine Boulevard, as if my family were moving on up to the East Side or something.

I didn’t get then that Erskine Blvd. carried some prestige. It was named after a past president of South Bend’s famed (but long since bankrupted and shuttered) Studebaker Corporation. A rare curved street on the city grid, its homes, many of which carried distinctive design touches, were a half-cut above the surrounding blocks of middle-class homes. None of the homes was breathtaking by any means, but together they had appeal that lent distinction to the boulevard.

Erskine Boulevard

Anchoring the boulevard's north end

When we moved in, many of our neighbors were the original homebuilders. Today, neighborhoods are built by developers; then, each owner bought a lot, hired an architect or bought existing blueprints, bought the materials, and hired an independent contractor to build their home. The neighborhood expanded in phases over 40 years with the first homes built on the north end in the 1920s and the last on the south end by 1960. This makes the boulevard a microcosm of middle-class residential styles that unfolds as you walk or drive it from north to south, with small two-story frame homes on small lots giving way to larger brick or limestone homes giving way to wide ranch homes set back more deeply on somewhat larger lots. Alleys hide behind the homes in the first six blocks; garages front the street in the last two. Power lines are buried in the first seven blocks, where ornamental street lights line the road; the last block got utility poles and exposed lines with plain industrial-grade street lights.

Erskine Boulevard

The family homestead

Our 1951 home was on the last block. The elementary school was one block away to the southwest; the high school seven blocks north. Few children lived on the boulevard, but each school morning and afternoon it was filled with kids walking to and from. My neighbors included my kindergarten teacher’s widower, my third grade teacher, my fourth grade teacher, and my high school homeroom teacher. We moved to Erskine Blvd. when I was in the fourth grade, and it was very exciting when Mrs. Brown, my teacher, walked over to welcome us to the neighborhood with a homemade cherry pie in her hands. It all made for the kind of neighborhood I have wished for since, but have never found – one in which people were brought together not just because of proximity, but because their lives made them interdependent on each other.

Erskine Boulevard

A favorite of mine

Being a city neighborhood, it was possible to do quite a bit without a car. A small grocery store and two pharmacies lay within a half mile, all easy walks. A dry cleaner, a dairy store, a library branch, and a five and dime with a stainless steel soda fountain were a bit farther away; I preferred to reach them on my bike. My dad used to drive his car to a service station six or seven blocks away and walk home while a technician fixed whatever was wrong with it. A two minute car ride took us to appliance and furniture dealers. And if Dad had been less of the home-cooked meal sort, we might have made more use of the three or four restaurants on the perimeter of our neighborhood. If Dad were a drinker, he could have lubricated himself just fine at the bar a few blocks away, which is close enough that he could have crawled home if he imbibed too much. All but the appliance store are gone now, although two well-regarded city golf courses remain, both within walking distance.

Erskine Boulevard

Another favorite

Also gone is pride in homeownership, at least in much of the surrounding neighborhood. The bad neighborhoods were over a mile north of us when I lived here; today, they’re only five or six blocks away. It’s typical of cities for decay to slowly radiate from the center, and decline will soon reach the blocks near my parents’ house. Somehow, Erskine Blvd. has escaped that decay, as these photographs show. Yet the boulevard’s prestige has faded as the neighborhood has become inner-city with all the attendant problems. It’s common to see the streets that cross Erskine Blvd. on the police blotter. Something like 80 percent of the children at the elementary school receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. The high school is on probation with the state because too few of its students passed the ISTEP standardized test.

Erskine Boulevard

In one of the northernmost blocks

Some southsiders are working to stem the decline and renew hope. Neighborhood associations have formed, and local businesses have made some attempts to come together for the good of the area. Some individuals are doing their part; my father, for example, has become involved in politics and with a few key grassroots social programs, encouraging both economic growth and individual growth to overcome the creeping malaise. And the church that anchors the boulevard’s south end, Living Stones Church, has made the surrounding neighborhoods its mission field. They have done a splendid job of showing simple, no-strings-attached love in the neighborhood. They give the elementary school a lot of their time and energy; for example, last year they gave new shoes to every student who wanted them. And nobody on Erskine Blvd. has forgotten how, after a terrible storm that toppled many dozens of trees, church members came through the neighborhood with their chain saws. They worked with their neighbors to cut up the felled trees and, if I recall correctly, drag the pieces to the curb for city pickup.

Erskine Boulevard

Not as wooded as it once was

Belying the challenges, and excepting the missing trees, Erskine Blvd. looks much as it always has, and life goes on there much as it always did. People still go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, and care for their homes and yards on the weekends. Children still walk to school and still ride their bikes and play. When I was in high school, my dear friend Debbie used to come by every morning and we’d walk together. Much of the school year we walked in the dark. When it snowed (and boy howdy, did it snow in South Bend) we made our way before the city plowed the boulevard and before the neighbors came out with shovels. We walked together silently, just enjoying how the fresh snow sparkled under the streetlights. I liked to go in early, so ours were usually the first footprints. I like to imagine that some high schoolers today find the same pleasure in those early morning snowy walks.

Erskine Boulevard

Notice the milk delivery door

The newspaper is still delivered, of course, although it’s a morning paper now, and teenagers shouldering canvas sacks full of papers have given way to adults in cars who dash out to place papers on porches. I delivered the South Bend Tribune every afternoon for many years. Several of the houses on my route had a little metal door into which milk was once delivered. It was a passthrough; a matching door inside let the homeowner exchange empty milk bottles for full without having to go out into the weather. By the time I came along, milk delivery was long gone, but my customers always wanted their newspaper left there. I imagine they still do.

Erskine Boulevard

I mowed this lawn for $4 a week

Elderly homeowners, I’m sure, still hire neighborhood kids to mow their lawns. I made good pocket money every summer doing that. I also raked leaves in the fall and shoveled driveways and sidewalks in the winter. One neighbor erected a wooden privacy fence around his back yard and hired my brother and I to stain it (for which he paid us a pittance, which was an important lesson in agreeing on a price before starting work). Another neighbor took his wife to Europe for two weeks every summer and paid me to bring in their mail and look after the place.

Erskine Boulevard

The boulevard's curve

An annual Christmastime tradition is the candlelight walk, which had its 25th anniversary in 2009. One evening about a week before Christmas, neighbors line both edges of the sidewalk in front of their homes with little white paper sacks weighed down with sand; a lighted candle is placed in each sack. That’s 2,500 candles along the boulevard’s eight blocks! People came from all over town to see; the event always made the news. In the early years, enthusiastic neighbors hired a horse-drawn wagon to give rides up and down the boulevard. That part of the tradition faded away after a few years, and flagging interest almost killed the event a few times. But not only has it hung on, it has become better than ever. Horse-drawn wagon rides are back, and Living Stones Church has gotten involved, hosting a nativity scene with live animals and serving everyone hot chocolate and cookies.

Even though I left South Bend in 1985 to go to college, my parents still live in their home on Erskine Blvd., and I visit several times a year. I like to take a walk up and down the boulevard while I’m there, or at least drive it, to enjoy my old neighborhood. What I wouldn’t give to live in a neighborhood like it today.

See the rest of my photos from this springtime walk along Erskine Blvd.

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13 thoughts on “On Erskine Boulevard

  1. Jim's Brother says:

    Heh. I remember when we were getting ready to move. In grade school, saying you were moving meant you were going to another school. I liked Dorothy and Diane at the time, a fact I made them keenly aware of, but they weren’t really fans of mine. So I thought it would be funny to tell them that we were moving. This elicited cheers. Then I dropped the news that I was moving *closer* to the school (and only three blocks from Dorothy’s house!). You’ve never seen second grade girls so sickened–it’s like I told them I had started an all-pony diet or something.

    “One neighbor erected a wooden privacy fence around his back yard and hired my brother and I to stain it (for which he paid us a pittance, which was an important lesson in agreeing on a price before starting work).” You’re being kind. At first, he suggested that he had given us valuable fence-staining experience and perhaps we should be paying him. We had to have Dad join us the third of fourth time we approached him for payment to get him to actually open his wallet. He was a classic example of something that rhymes with “bat rastard” (I’m being delicate, as this is a family blog).

    On a happier note, your observation that the housing, north to south, represents a kind of timeline of homebuilding styles was a revelation to me. I’ll look at it with new eyes next time I’m up there. Thanks!

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    • I didn’t know you paid any attention to my blog!

      I remember our first visit to the house. Dad was standing on the corner by the school waiting for us, and he walked with us to the new house. It was a big surprise. The place seemed huge compared to the prefab crackerbox we’d been living in. Good Lord, but did the previous owners like green; almost everything was painted in some shade of it. Except for my room; remember how it was painted in gold with white trim, with a fuzzy red rug on the floor? Gag!

      Yes, there certainly was more to the fence-staining story. But this post was too long already. And one thing I’ve learned about blogging is not to give away too much at any one time, so future posts can keep wringing more details out of old stories!

      I don’t know what was wrong with Dorothy and Diane. They missed out.

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    • Kevin slater says:

      My name is Kevin Slater. We used to live at 2424 and added on a large two story addition around 1985. Do you recall the blue house at Victoria and Erakine. My neighbor then was Rob Mesaros.He and I along with our wives, Barb Slater and Karen Mesaros decided one night to start the candle light walk since we had freinds on Park Ave. we wanted to compete. We ordered all the materials and went door to door. Our goal was 100 % participation. We paid for all the materials ourselvea. All folks had to do was agree to place them out the night of the event.We distributed the bags, sand and candles. We even placed them the evening of the event for those who might not be home. It was the first time.We lighted very home from Donmoyer to Ewing.
      It was the second year when we got the idea for the Carriage rides. We moved away few years later but the tradition had begun. Two neighbors with an idea. It took a lot of effort to get it started but it is rewarding to see it continue. Rob ans Karen Mesaros’s daughter now owns and lives in our old home. Our daughter lives on Erskine just two blocks south of our old home. Our children still say that house was “magical”. It was a good time to live there.

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      • I left South Bend when I graduated high school in 1985. But I walked by your house every day while I was a student at Riley.

        The candlelight walk usually happened before I returned home from college for winter break. I saw one or two but that’s it. But it was a great tradition and thank you for starting it!

        My parents are packing, ready to move from Erskine after having lived there for 38 years. I will be sad not to be able to call Erskine Blvd. home anymore. It is a lovely place.

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    • Thanks Jon — these are all just snapshots, really. I had my dog on the leash and so only one hand was free! I wish I’d taken a little more care in lining up a couple of the shots as there were probably angles where the trees wouldn’t obscure the view so much. My favorite is the one of 2726, with the milk door. Not only has that house not changed one iota since 1976, I like the interplay of the planes on that one.

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  2. Matt says:

    Enjoyed the detailed retrospective about your street and neighborhood – especially the contrasts in north to south and then to now. I’m the same age and grew up in a subdivision in Clay Township. You were lucky to live in a place where you could walk to typical city stuff as a kid. I could walk to another state in 1 minute, though…

    Another north-south difference on your street must have been that homes in the northerly blocks had their phone service switched from downtown (23x or 28x), and the southerly blocks from Ireland Road (291, etc.). This would have been the case, anyway, after the southside switching office was opened in probably the early 1960s.

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    • Matt, thanks for dropping in. All of our neighbors had 23x and 28x phone numbers, actually. But Indiana Bell let us bring our 291 number with us from our previous home, which was closer to Ireland Road.

      One of my brother’s friends, who lived a few blocks east, had a number on the downtown switch, but I can’t remember whether it was a 23x or 28x number now. At any rate, if you were at his house and dialed his number on his phone, you got a dial tone right back — and then if you dialed any single digit, you’d get a busy signal. But when you hung up the phone, the phone would immediately start ringing. The kind of ring you got depended on which single-digit number you dialed. It was very cool, and I was jealous because it didn’t work at our house — 291 was on a different, and I presume more modern, switch.

      I also recall how calling a 291 number had a different ring (through the receiver) than calling the 28x and 23x numbers. If I recall correctly, that went away while I was at college in the mid-late 80s. I have to guess that a modern digital switch was installed, consolidating the old exchanges, and the old switches were retired.

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  3. I’d lost track of this after doing several reverse address searches to figure out the boundary line for the switching territory. Warning: This is pretty detailed!

    Numbering and phones were two of my fixations as a kid, and I liked to try to figure out where the boundaries were. For example, the boundary line between South Bend Main (23x and 28X) and Mishawaka (25x) was pretty clear – Logan Street, St. Joseph River, Ironwood Drive. But the boundaries that divided the SB North (27x) and SB South (29x) territories from SB Main were less clear and often varied from block to block in each vicinity. It’s difficult to get much data on landlines anymore, but I think I deduced that you were right on the dividing line, with the west side of your block in SB South territory and the east side of the street served by SB Main. A little farther north, it was all SB Main. But I wasn’t able to determine where the actual boundary was.

    The ringback scenario you described actually sounds like the 291 switch, which was a Western Electric #5 crossbar (until it was replaced with a WECo 5ESS digital in 1986 – just as you recalled). In Clay Township (272, 277 prefixes), we had a 5XB (replaced by a 5ESS in Sept 1985), and it behaved just the same. Imagine the hours of fun a bored 10-year-old could have with making the phone ring back in different cadences. (Or calling Mr. Moo’s tavern on Lincolnway West and saying “Moooooo”…) These two offices (SB South and SB North) had a ringback tone that sounded like this: http://www.telephonetribute.com/audio/ChatRing.rm

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    • When we moved to town in the late 1970s, SB Main had two switches: CEntral (23x) and ATlantic (28x). 23x was a #1 ESS (electronically controlled analog switch), and 28x was a #1 Step-by-Step (electromechanical, early-20th-century technology). Most likely, the 23x office was SxS before the 1ESS was installed (probably early to mid 1970s). In early 1982, the 28x office was cut over to the 1ESS, and the SxS switch was retired.

      The ringback tone for the SxS would have sounded similar to this: http://www.telephonetribute.com/audio/mod_rbt.rm
      And busyback tone: http://www.telephonetribute.com/audio/mod_busy.rm

      And of course the ESS ringback tone sounds like this: http://www.telephonetribute.com/audio/ring.rm

      I never got to play with a SxS phone line until college (the old IU phone system), so I don’t know whether those would ring back. SxS and ESS machines probably had ringback protocols that were different from 5XB. But on an ESS, if you dialed your own number, you would reach busyback tone: http://www.telephonetribute.com/audio/mod_busy.rm

      Mishawaka (25x) had a SxS switch also, until it was replaced by a 1AESS switch in 1979. SB Main (23x and 28x) and Mishawaka had their WECo #1 ESS machines until sometime in the early 1990s, when they were replaced by digital switches – namely the Nortel DMS-100.

      And there you have it… much more than you ever cared to know about a two-decade period in South Bend’s telephone history.

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    • Matt, I don’t mind the detail one bit. I have a bit of a telephony background; my first job out of college was with a software company that provided telephone network management systems. I’ve even had two switch tours in my time, one at a GTE switch in downtown Fort Wayne and one at a Rochester Tel switch in Rochester, NY — the kind of tours where they show you how a call comes in, goes all through the building, and goes out. I tell you what, the guys who work on those switches sure seemed extremely proud of it.

      I remember when the ringback changed for 282. I also remember when, after I moved away, the first time the familiar ringback on my parents 291 number changed, which would have coincided with the move to the 5ESS. I felt like I’d lost an old friend!

      I think one reason the dividing lines in SB were fuzzy was because after a while Indiana Bell started letting people carry their numbers with them when they moved, at least to a limited extent. As I said earlier, my parents brought their 291 number with them in 1976 when they bought their current house, but all the neighbors were 23x and 28x. I’m not sure how that was accomplished then — today I know it’s not a big deal at all. I moved a considerable distance in Indianapolis a few years ago and brought my 297 number with me, as a switch near me controls a bunch of prefixes all over northwest Indianapolis.

      If I had been born just a few years earlier, I probably would have become a serious phone geek. But I am just young enough that computer programming captured my attention instead.

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  4. Steve Miller says:

    From the ’20s through the end of production in the ’60s, Studebaker used many South Bend residential locations for new car product shots — I suspect lots of homes you see behind the cars belonged to employees. I’m willing to bet some of the houses were in your neighborhood…

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